The phrase “all Emiratis are equal, but some Emiratis are more equal than others” sums up the idea behind this article. For there is a world unknown to a majority of Emiratis whose tragedy cannot be overestimated.
Before the advent of the official Emirates Identification card, a passport was thought by many to be the most important legal identification. However, unlike many other nations, “real” Emiratis have to be holders of a document known as Kholasat Qaid, or a Family Book. If a person is married then the name of the spouse is also included in this book along with the names of parents and children. Possessing this book, not a regular passport, is what apparently make one a “real Emirati”. Not having one is not too different from carrying a passport from the United Nations. One can use the passport for travel but it doesn’t show that you belong anywhere.
The vast majority of Emiratis have a family book except for a small number of children of Emirati mothers and foreign fathers. In the past few years the UAE government has taken positive steps to naturalise the children of Emirati mothers who married non-nationals so that they could be given the same rights of children whose fathers are Emirati but whose mothers are not. Previously these mothers had to resort to seeking exemptions for their children to enrol in public schools and to receive treatment in government hospitals.
This was a welcome step and hailed by the local media. Sadly, there are two issues that remain unresolved. These steps were not equally applied to the children of all Emirati mothers married to non-nationals. Some were given passports while others continue to be in a state of suspended identity. The mothers of these children continue to go to the naturalisation departments to get residence visas for their sons and daughters, whom they have given birth to and raised in the UAE. The lucky ones were handed a magic document, a passport to better opportunities and infinite possibilities, or so they had thought.
Not long after these children were granted passports did their mothers discover that this was a bittersweet and incomplete step since they still lacked the precious family book. Take the case of Ayesha, a UAE citizen and mother, whose love for this country is unquestioned. Ayesha decided to marry an American of Arab origin whom she had met during her time as a student in the US. Ayesha put her faith in the country, moved back after her studies and raised her family here, teaching her children about Emirati culture, values and traditions. Her children were Emirati in all but citizenship. When the government’s other Emiratisation scheme kicked off, she applied for citizenship for her children. She was told that her children would have to forgo their US passports in order to qualify for Emirati citizenship, which they gladly did. Their US passports were returned promptly and the children continued their studies in their respective private schools. Today, however, Ayesha’s eldest is enrolled in her final year of high-school but will be prohibited from attending Zayed University, the Higher Colleges of Technology or the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain because she lacks a family book.
To add to their financial burdens, Emirati women married to non-nationals don’t qualify for subsidised housing provided by the numerous housing programmes across the country. Emirati women, like their male counterparts, should have the right to marry whomever they wish and not be punished for their decision.
On the one hand, it is not uncommon for Emirati men who study abroad to marry foreign women, decreasing the “pool” of potential spouses for Emirati women. On the other hand, as Emirati women continue to outnumber men in university, many of them will not be in a position to meet suitable husbands with equal levels of education, making them more likely to marry non-nationals.
These different standards for national men and women can no longer continue. In this globalised world, who among us can claim to be 100 per cent pure and real Emirati? I do not dispute the need for us as a young and wealthy country to protect our identity and customs. We must make sure that no marriages of convenience take place for the purpose of taking advantage of the generous government welfare programmes. But we could balance these necessities by granting spouses, both male and female, citizenship after a long period of marriage. Still, we should grant their children equal opportunities immediately, which means providing them with a family book.
When the UAE announced that it had ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1997 it vowed to make education “free for all stages starting from kindergarten to university”. Nothing was said about the law only applying to UAE citizens who hold a special little brown book.
This must end. It’s against human rights, against our religion, customs and traditions. Above all, it’s un-Emirati.
*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday 7th February 2010